October 18, 2017

Symposium on Sustaining Digital Information, Part 2: Economics and Reflections

By Norman Oder

Mellon Foundation president emeritus cites blended funding model, says third parties needed to prompt collaboration

  • Need for multiple funding sources
  • Portico model not perfect
  • No one is backing up TV
  • Flexible, committed organizations needed

(Also see the first half of this report: "At Symposium on Sustaining Digital Information, a Call for Libraries To Step Up")

Following up on yesterday’s coverage of “A National Conversation on the Economic Sustainability of Digital Information,” sponsored by the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access, LJ takes a look at the final panel and the wrap-up session.

The economics of digital information
Moderator Paul Courant, a Task Force member and University Librarian and Dean of Libraries at the University of Michigan, noted that digital preservation is an economic good, "but one that markets may often fail to produce very well."

So what’s the solution?

William G. Bowen, President Emeritus, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, agreed that the potential economies from digital preservation are very substantial, "but none of that can happen unless librarians know and universities know that the digital content is going to be there."

Libraries cannot count on scholarly publishers to maintain material, he said, because those publishers may go out of business. "This is not a problem that’s going to take care of itself," he said, because "preserved digital content is what economists call a public good… subject to a free rider problem," in which people can benefit without paying.

He then listed "creative ways" of giving those paying some extra benefits. "Portico, a piece of a broader [Mellon-supported] entity called Ithaka, has, I think, been very imaginative in finding a preservation machinery and getting some people to pay," he said, "but one thing you should know is that it has been more challenging for Portico to build a sustainable model than parts of the [Task Force] report suggest." Original estimates of how many libraries would participate were too optimistic.

Bowen suggested that (Mellon-funded) JSTOR‘s policy of bundling access and preservation is a good idea. He wondered whether libraries can put more pressure on publishers to cover the cost of archiving, but noted potential antitrust issues.

"Libraries might impose some self-imposed tax on their membership," he mused, then offered a fourth tactic: "shame—shame people who don’t pay some share. I am skeptical that will work."

Collaboration is crucial to obtain economies of scale, but "getting universities to collaborate is exceedingly difficult, they are just too competitive." (He didn’t mention recent efforts to collaborate in certain areas like collections, as in the Mellon-supported 2CUL from Columbia and Cornell universities.)

Thus, Bowen said, "I think there’s an enormous role for third party entities above the fray." Beyond Mellon, however, it’s not clear which entities will play a role.

The ultimate solution, he suggested, may be "a blended funding model" involving user fees, contributions, and "some ways of imposing taxes." He warned that it would be dangerous to lean too heavily on unreliable public funding sources and suggested that "foundations can help, but they get bored."

Making it work
Hal Varian, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Information, and on leave as Chief Economist, Google, appeared via webcast. He suggested that digital information was a nonrival good (use of it doesn’t diminish the total) but which is excludable (consumption by others can be prevented), thus a "club good," somewhat analogous to a private swimming pool.

Excludability, he said, makes projects like JSTOR viable, but it’s also inefficient, because many users could be brought in. "The whole trick, is: how do you turn free riders into paid riders?" 

"Price discrimination" is necessary for JSTOR’s viability, and different institutions pay for different levels of service and access to back issues of journals.

Varian suggested that, of the four types of data discussed in the Task Force report, there likely are (or will be) structures in place to preserve scholarly data and research data.

Commercial data and collective content
However, he said that he sees a real challenge regarding the other two categories, one of which is commercial data. "It’s shocking to realize that no one is backing up TV," he said, calling it the medium "that probably had the most impact on society in the 20th century."

While mandatory deposit at the Library of Congress (LC) has worked for books, he expressed doubt it would work for TV. "They may be willing to back up CNN, but are they willing to back up Desperate Housewives or Dancing with the Stars?"

It might be a reasonable idea for industry to pay for it, "but making it happen would be very difficult."

He proposed "a wild and crazy utopian idea," in which Congress passes legislation that describes the rights and responsibilities of an archive keeper" and thus opens it up to many solutions. "I say it’s kind of utopian… but in the 1980s, there were 26,000 multimedia libraries set up in the U.S…. We called them video rental stores." (One audience member later suggested that current copyright law might suffice.)

As for collectively-produced digital content, he said, "that’s a huge mess," given the more diffuse responsibility for such content. One possible solution: having specialized libraries back up web sites in their area of interest.

Further analysis
Dan Rubinfeld, Robert L. Bridges Professor of Law and Professor of Economics, University of California, Berkeley, a Task Force member, asked Bowen if the bundled model of JSTOR could be applied beyond journals. Bowen wasn’t sure.

Varian said the question is whether the content might bring in a future revenue stream, and why web content isn’t valued. "In some ways, the web today is the way radio and TV was in the ’30s and ’40s," he said, "very ephemeral and nobody thought it should be preserved."

Rubinfeld said, "I kind of like the idea, as a new behavioral economist, that we change ‘shame’ to ‘envy,’" so someone who joins a preservation effort feels positive.

He asked Varian about Google’s preservation values.

"We do save everything," Varian said, "and the cost of storage is going down down down." He said "the archiving component is going to remain a part of the company for the foreseeable future," but couldn’t comment on the very long term.

One audience member asked about ensuring accountability into the system. Varian said Google was working with Carl Malamud’s Public.Resource.org, which has volunteers digitizing government video content. "Volunteers can do good things, but we do want some economic motivation," he said.

Need for urgency
Wrapping up the event, Clifford Lynch, director of the Coalition of Networked Information and a member of the Task Force, suggested "there is some very real urgency to this," citing the need to preserve research data and the challenge to preserve such things as social media.

He noted that an interim report of the task force concluded that there’s no substitute for a "flexible committed organization dedicated to preserving a corpus of material." The solution, he said, is not "technology magic bullets but systems of stewardship."

He agreed that the report didn’t discuss public policy in detail or who should take responsibility. As for whether universities can step up, as the UK’s Derek Law suggested earlier in the day, Lynch suggested that "the research libraries within our great universities are mostly ready" but may not have support at the highest levels of their institutions.

Ethics, threats, and passion
Lynch also pointed to the issue of ethics, noting that, as the past few years’ experience shows, relying on the rational behavior of markets may be risky. He urged a recognition of "not simply monetizable value, but social value." The purpose of preserving scientific data is not to keep it, but "to improve science."

Beyond that, he said the Task Force didn’t discuss much about threat environments. Beyond technological threats, he warned that certain collections, such as those documenting human rights violations, may be subject to different threats.

Though there had been much talk about economics, Lynch said the audience should not forget to "make room for people with a passion to preserve. Our institutions don’t always get this right."


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